Remembering Roger Williams

BySarah A. Morgan Smith
On October 6, 2020

On October 9, 1635, Roger Williams was exiled from the colony of Massachusetts–banished for having “broached and divulged diverse new and dangerous opinions, against the authority of magistrates,” and “also writ[ten] letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here.” This month, on our sister site, Religion In America, we consider two letters written by Williams that

The first, written shortly after his exile to John Winthrop shows how Williams accepted the right of particular covenant communities to establish their own membership and reminds us that although we might see his banishment as unwarranted, it was seen as a relatively reasonable measure in the seventeenth century. The second, written to his “well-beloved friends and neighbors” after he had secured royal recognition for his control over the colony indicates that Williams did, in fact, move away from this view, attempting to mitigate the tension between the need for unity and the disagreements that necessarily followed from toleration.

Talented and charismatic as a minister, Roger Williams was a radical even by the standards of Puritan Massachusetts when it came to the pursuit of holiness. Williams—who is most often remembered today as a champion of religious liberty—was something of a schismatic in his own time, refusing to worship or share communion with those whose positions on certain theological questions differed from his own. Williams’ criticisms extended to civil matters as well, leading him into conflicts with the government of the colony. After several years of stirring up trouble in Massachusetts Bay, Williams was banished from the colony. Rather than face deportation, Williams fled the colony and spent the winter among the local Wampanoag tribe. By the spring of 1636, he had negotiated agreements with both the Wampanoag and the neighboring Narragansett tribe for land at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay in 1636. There, joined by several families from his previous congregation, Williams established the first settlement, eventually known as Providence, in what would eventually become the colony of Rhode Island.

A dissenter, exiled for his rigid pursuit of church purity, Williams became an advocate of a more minimal vision of civil unity. The community he built would not commit itself to a single theological view. Instead, it would commit to respecting the equal rights of all members in matters of conscience, even if that meant tolerating a rather robust debate on such matters.



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